By Olya Yordanyan
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
BOSTON — Writing a novel about the Armenian Genocide has never been on UK-based writer Eve Makis’ agenda. Makis’ latest book, The Spice Box Letters, is a historical novel capturing the story of an Armenian family, who saw the horrors of the Genocide.
“I didn’t sit down to write a book about the Armenian Genocide. I just wanted to write a story about an ordinary family. And it seems to me that every ordinary Armenian family had been touched by this tragedy,” Makis said in a recent Skype interview.
In the story, siblings Gabriel and Mariam Arakelians become victims of forced deportations, lose their parents and end up in different countries. Mariam goes to the UK, believing her siblings were dead. She did not reveal the past to her family. Only after her death, Mariam’s granddaughter finds her journal and explores the past, making groundbreaking discoveries about her family.
Gabriel settles in Nicosia, Cyprus, spending a lifetime to search for his mother. By the time of narration, he is a grouchy elderly man who wants her granddaughter to marry an Armenian man instead of a Greek.
Makis said she usually plots her novels around Cyprus and Cypriots. She said she knows life on the island intimately. She was born to Greek Cypriot expats, who moved to the UK in the early 1960s. Makis also lived in Cyprus for a couple of years, including during the period of 2012-2014 while working on the book.
A former radio presenter, Makis started writing 18 years ago. In addition to The Spice Box Letters, she has written three other novels, Eat, Drink and Be Married; The Mother in Law and Land of the Golden Apple. She completed a screenplay called “Boy on the Bridge,” which is based on Land of the Golden Apple.
She is also a part-time tutor in creative writing at Nottingham University.
Makis said that she arbitrarily picked Armenian heroes for her fourth novel when aiming to explore a minority community in Cyprus.
Makis explained that she, not knowing much about Armenian history and the Genocide, started exploring the past to learn why so many settled in Cyprus and to fully understand the motives of her subjects.
“I began to research the history. I started to interview the relatives of survivors,” Makis said. “I kept asking myself why haven’t I known about this. Why haven’t I read about this in mainstream literature?”
She started working on this “risky” undertaking in 2010. It took her four years and cost her a good literary agent who did not think people would care about a story of an Armenian family.
“Nobody cares about the Armenians.” Makis recalled her former agent saying.
She first followed her former agent’s advice to write a commercial crime novel. But her curiosity took over soon. Makis found a new agent who believed that the story of the Arakelians needs to be told and she gave the novel another try.
The Spice Box Letters was a challenging work for Makis. She explained that this novel is different from her previous books in subject and style. For about two years she was “overly reverent and overly sentimental” about the topic.
“It is very hard to take a subject so tragic and to imbue it with some lightness and a little bit of comedy,” Makis said. “I write relatively light books, satire, but this subject did not easily lend itself to the sort of writing that I do.”
Due to similarities of Greek and Armenian traditions it was not that hard for Makis to depict the Armenian lifestyle. But to make the narrative more authentic she consulted members of the Armenian community in Cyprus.
“I didn’t want to write a parody of the Armenian culture. I wanted my characters to be genuinely Armenian,” Makis said.
The character of Gabriel Arakelian is based on the stories of real people the author interviewed.
“The main stories were based on the stories that I heard from an old man and several older members of the Armenian community,” Makis said.
She does not see herself a “spokesperson for the Genocide,” but hopes people who did not know about it, will try to find out more after they read the book.
The British edition of The Spice Box Letters was published in 2015, when the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide was marked.
The novel’s Greek translation came out at the same time as the English version. Its Italian, Polish and Czech translations are to be published.
The U.S. edition will be out in September.